Bonni Gail Tischler, 60, the highest-ranking female law enforcement officer during a 30-year career at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and one of the first female sky marshals, died of cancer Aug. 9 at George Washington University Hospital. She was an Arlington resident.
Known as "the girl with the golden gun" for the small, gold-plated Smith & Wesson .38 she carried in her handbag, she told The Washington Post in 2002 that she volunteered for what she called "a guy kind of environment" when she joined the then-Customs Service in 1971 and subsequently "fell in love with law enforcement."
She bought the golden gun in Miami in the early 1980s, when she was investigating Colombian drug traffickers, who favored flashy clothes and ostentatious gold jewelry.
"The boys were all buying automatics, but they were too big for me," she told The Post in 1987. "They kept saying my chrome-plated .357 Magnum clashed with my gold jewelry. What would the Colombians say?"
The golden gun was a big hit, she said. Drug traffickers regularly offered to buy it when she made an arrest.
A 5-foot-3 woman who dressed stylishly, Ms. Tischler broke through several glass ceilings but conformed to few law enforcement stereotypes.
"No other woman in federal law enforcement has ever achieved what Bonni Tischler accomplished during her long career," Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in a statement.
Ms. Tischler was born in New York and grew up in Florida. She received her undergraduate degree in broadcast communications from the University of Florida in 1966 and worked briefly in New York before moving to the District and taking a job as an administrative assistant with the Republican National Committee.
Living in Georgetown with roommates who were flight attendants, she learned from them about the sky marshal program, shortly after President Richard M. Nixon signed a 1971 executive order granting women equal status in federal law enforcement.
Her job as a sky marshal, she told a radio interviewer in 2000, was to "ride airplanes and keep them safe from hijackers."
Her parents were horrified, she told The Post in 1987. "My mother always said that nice Jewish girls don't go into law enforcement," she said.
Although women in federal law enforcement were suspect in the beginning, her colleagues soon forgot she was a "female" agent, a cohort told The Post.
Her gender occasionally came in handy on the job. In the 1987 Post story, agent Dennis Fagan recalled working undercover with her in Miami, with Ms. Tischler posing as an aspiring madam and Fagan as her muscleman. She was trying to convince two suspects that she was interested in purchasing their house of prostitution. Fagan recalled that she got into the role, fluttering her eyelashes and allowing her skirt to creep higher and higher.
In the mid-1970s, she worked as an Equal Employment Opportunity investigator and organized the Interagency Committee on Women in Law Enforcement.
She became a special agent in 1977. In 1980, she became the only female agent assigned to Operation Greenback, a newly formed task force in Miami that pioneered the investigative technique of tracking illicit money back to drug kingpins.
Considered a financial whiz, she was transferred back to Washington in 1983 to supervise the agency's financial operations. In 1986, she became director of the Smuggling Investigations Division and helped integrate the agency's tactical operations with narcotics, financial, child pornography and general smuggling investigations.
She also headed the agency's marine branch, an assignment that initially gave her pause. She told The Post that she thought to herself: "What do I know about boats? I don't do boats. I do Bloomingdale's."
Despite her misgivings, she studied the technical manuals for the vessels under her command and soon learned to operate them.
In 1987, she became special agent in charge of North Florida, based in Tampa, where she supervised agents investigating money laundering at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. The bank became the target in one of the largest money-laundering cases ever prosecuted.
In 1995, she became special agent in charge of South Florida (Miami), the largest investigative unit within the Customs Service. Also in 1995, she received a master's degree in management from National-Louis University.
She moved back to Washington in 1997 to become the first female assistant commissioner for the office of investigations.
In 2000, she became the agency's first woman to serve as assistant commissioner for field operations, with responsibility for all cargo and passenger processing. She considered retiring in 2001 but stayed on after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to work on the twin tasks of keeping trade and the economy moving while enhancing border security.
After retiring from government service in 2002, she became a product vice president in the Arlington office of Pinkerton's Global Transportation and Supply Chain Security Department. She held that position until her death.
Survivors include her mother, Anita Kessel, and her stepfather, Stan Kessel, both of Hollywood, Fla.; a brother, Sam Tischler of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; and a half brother, Andy Kessel of Little Rock.